Open Clasp’s Rattle Snake at Howlands Hall: “should be praised”

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In 2015 the government passed a law declaring that coercive or controlling behaviour was now a crime. McHugh extols this law in Rattle Snake, which explores the horror of living under an oppressive partner. Told mostly in diegesis, the play recounts a relationship ab ovo and shows the decay of a once promising romance into a darkly abusive marriage.

Most strikingly, the play confines the action to a small space defined by a cubic frame, a choice which conveys the increasing sense of confinement that a woman in this position may feel. The cube becomes a psychological space in which the two personae alternately re-enact the victim and the abuser, creating a sense of fluidity in which memories are painfully revisited and the abuser’s unpredictability is vividly represented. It also emphasises the struggle for identity that the abused woman must endure. Moreover, we see the actors confined by the cube, an effect which creates a dramatic distance and reminds us of our separation from the suffering psyche to which we are normally denied access, a condition indicative of society and which McHugh has succeeded to highlight.

“We are sending a clear message that it is wrong to violate the trust of those closest to you and that emotional and controlling abuse will not be tolerated.” – Karen Brady

However, it must be noted that this staging has its limitations. The play’s advertisement describes ‘a story without ending’, an allusion to the fact that the play contains no dramatic resolution and that the abuse may continue, a rather pertinent on the continuing suffering in our society. In the final moments, one of the personae contemplates disaster and steps outside of the cube, an ambiguous ending in which either the self is annihilated or the self is affirmed in seeing herself from a new perspective. Given the careful use of confinement this ending could be cathartic, however, it is also potentially predictable, and thus the effect is lessened.

I hesitate to call the two personae ‘characters’ as they alternately re-enact the abusive James, and at times say their lines simultaneously. Rather they are better seen as agents of the psyche which have fluid identities and portray the machinations of the mind. McHugh shows what coercive behaviour looks like at a psychological level and is aided by an accomplished range of lighting and sound effects. She must be commended for the capaciousness of these personae, encapsulating not only this central relationship but also the wider community. We see, for example, James, the abuser, leaning over the cubic frame and declaring to the street that he is the victim, an act that reminds us that we the viewer, and we society, are, to some extent, complicit in this abuse. McHugh herself says that she desires the play to reach a wider audience so that one may ‘feel the potential for change in the air’. Her project seems to be to translate the law into a sympathetic and palpable portrayal of suffering and to underline the necessity for change. I believe that for the most part, she has done this well and I praise her efforts.

She is certainly a writer that believes in the didactic and social value of theatre, especially in this play which she hopes will change lives. I do not contest this goal whatsoever; it is nothing but commendable. However, as a work of art, I must argue that at times the play can be too explicit. One instance is the allusion to Clare’s Law, explained in the programme as one that provides information to victims of abuse. I did not feel that this significantly advanced the plot, instead, it reminded one of the writer’s presences in the play and momentarily resembled a public information film rather than a piece of theatre. Politically agreeable yes, but aesthetically disruptive. Similarly, the play recalls when the victim fought for legal custody of her children, a scene which compares the conflict to a boxing match. The scene appears almost comic; however, it is rather jarring compared to the relatively dark tone of the rest of the play and instead comes across as a somewhat blunt metaphor.

The few aesthetic flaws it has should be acknowledged, however, for the most part, the play foregrounds abuse and psychic distress rather and should be praised for that as well as for its political statement.

Photograph: Keith Pattison via live.org.uk

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